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A Double-Dose of Original Sin

The Ferryman
by Jez Butterworth
directed by Sam Mendes
The Royal Court Theatre

It’s hard to believe it’s been eight years since Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem shook the rigs of the Royal Court. It always seemed a big ask for the playwright to improve on his trademark fusion of the old world and new, the personal and political, the comic and tragic – at least not without a sense of repeating himself. He may not have topped the mythical irreverence of Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron here, but in many ways his latest play exceeds revelation. Sam Mendes’ riveting production of The Ferryman effortlessly pulls you into its current, entrances you with the hurtling scenery, and then leaves you powerless in the whirlpool of its inexorable conclusion.


August, 1981. Rob Howell’s set opens on the scabby exterior of a Derry safe-house – the Republican graffiti in the alleyway leaves no doubt as to which organisation the occupants belong. Father Horrigan, summoned by these shady characters, is informed that a body, fossilised over ten years, has been found in the bogs of County Louth. The dead man, we learn, has a brother still living – a former member of the ‘RA turned farmer, Quinn Carney. Their interest in the Father is his priest-penitent privilege: Quinn’s confessions. How much does Quinn know, how much will he tell? Cue the raising of the pre-set to reveal a great trapezoidal kitchen – Quinn’s auld homestead in County Armagh. For anyone who’s ever spent time in rural Ireland, either side of the border, bells will be ringing – the perpetual breakfasts spitting on the hob, children’s artwork, mud-caked wellies, bottomless bottles of Bushmills, and a flurry of a family to wedge themselves around a single table. Howell gets it all spot-on. It’s a warm embrace of a design, and a right royal welcome.


Before this, however, we see the night before eking into the morning after. Our hero Quinn Carney larks about to the blare of The Rolling Stones, much to the amusement of his sunrise companion. A wife, a sister, a housekeeper? They smoke, drink, play Connect-4 blindfolded, dance – all with the subtlest, most succulent undertones of flirtation – until one of Quinn’s wains rises from bed and begs to blow the morning bugle, rousing the rest of the household. This perfect explosion of family life, however, is not all it seems – and certainly not today.


The late-summer setting of the play has its roots in ritual. Where Jerusalem had St. George’s Day, here we have Harvest Day, and the whole farm – father, mother, seven children, cousins, aunts, an uncle, an English factotum, several rabbits and a runaway goose – each contribute in their own way to the festivities. It’s a masterstroke of an introduction that leaves us deliciously baffled as we slowly connect the dots as to who’s who. Hanging over this happy scene is the radio relating Margaret Thatcher’s showdown with the hunger strikers (Bobby Sands has died a few months before), a mother’s mysterious illness, and of course the impending arrival of the IRA big dogs. Never before have I seen a sprawling family unit so brilliantly concocted before the audience’s eyes.


To over-explain the plot would do it a disservice, but the characters should suggest something of its intricacy. As the family patriarch, Paddy Considine is a commanding presence, a grizzled font of love, discipline and a troubled longing – the source of which eventually becomes clear. Genevieve O’Reilly, as his wife Mary, is otherworldly as a living icon, shifting delicately between maternal benevolence and undisclosed sorrow. John Hodgkinson’s eccentric English neighbour Tom Kettle brings a gentle giant of a character that outdoes even Of Mice And Men’s Lenny. His bumbling attempts at wooing are liable to make an eggshell of your heart, and he provides a seat-squirming moment in which he offers an IRA bossman a Royal Gala apple, oblivious to the red rag of his monarchical affections (“I sent off for the seeds. In 1953, to celebrate the Queen’s Coronation.”)


The fantastically-named Aunt Maggie Faraway, played by the entrancing Bríd Brennan, is Quinn’s wheelchair-bound elderly relative, suffering from dementia. On the rare occasions she returns to lucidity she regales the children with news of her ‘trips’ – of the only man she ever loved, she sweetly says: “I swear to Christ I would have ridden that boy from here to Connemara. And back.” There’s no muffling of youngsters’ ears here. Not that Aunt Maggie is mere comic relief – she’s also the Cassandra of the piece, stricken by visions of vengeful banshees, adding that Butterworth magic to this otherwise period piece. It is an exceptional, extravagantly good cast, and if word-counts allowed every one could be singled out here. Yet it must be said that Laura Donnelly’s Caitlin, a young widow and spanner in Quinn’s proverbial works, is a vivacious world in herself – earthily sensual at play, dangerously volatile in grief – Donnelly gives a sensational performance. Go on then, one final mention: you probably won’t have seen child actors this good outside of the West End musicals (better yet, they’re delectably foul-mouthed – when seven-year old Honor’s fortune is told, her response is: “Nine kids. Fuck me blue.”)


Never mind Connect-4: The Ferryman unfolds as grippingly as a grandmaster chess championship. Red herrings are dangled, dead-ends smashed through, and though the resolution doesn’t leave us with anything so simple as a happy ending, it satisfies enormously. Butterworth is credited with saying of Jerusalem’s Rooster Byron: “It’s funny, once you tap into a voice, words just start to flow. You know when you’ve hit a spirit.” If his characters are spirits, then this play is a possession. Be warned: it’ll stay with you long after the lights come up. 

Rowan Munro

photos | ©Johan Persson

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